History, Journalism, and Haiti:  A Conversation with Taylor Prescott (JCB fellow 2022-23) and Randi Richardson (Brown ‘20) and Karin Wulf

Image of Taylor Prescott and Randi Richardson '20.

The scale of the New York Times “The Ransom” series as well as some provocative headlines and tweets caught historians’ attention – and inspired more than a little bit of ire. In May of 2022, the Times published its extensive historical investigation into how France made Haiti, the first nation formed by formerly enslaved people, pay for its –and those former slaves’ – independence. The long-term financial consequences of that “double indemnity” has been extensively studied by scholars, but the Times dug into it from a different vantage, and with some different sources and questions– and, of course, a different audience than academics typically reach. Some scholars felt that the journalists’ claims of novelty failed to credit their work; others wished that their interactions with the reporting team had been credited. This controversy, modest in terms of the overall impact of the series, largely played out on social media, though some media outlets did cover it; the Times described it as “A Debate Kindled Among Historians” over just “how comprehensively journalists should credit the experts they speak to during the course of reporting — and how extensively they should acknowledge the work on the subject that has been done in the past.”

Getting historians and journalists to work together on major issues with deep historical roots is important, so the next month the John Carter Brown Library partnered with the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia to host an event with both the NYT reporting team and scholars of Haiti, including Brown’s Tony Bogues, Director of the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. History, Journalism, Haiti: Reflections on the New York Times "The Ransom" Series explored how journalists and historians can work together, and what we can learn from the “Ransom” series.

The event was broadcast on Zoom, and can be viewed on Brown’s YouTube channel.  

Laurent Dubois of UVA and I introduced the issues and the participants, and posed a series of questions for both the reporters and scholars. The full event went a little beyond the scheduled 90 minutes, and we felt the conversation was so good we could have gone on and on.

What I didn’t know was that the audience of hundreds who joined us from many time zones and latitudes included our perfect audience: partners Taylor Prescott and Randi Richardson (‘20), a historian and a journalist, respectively. Taylor is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania studying the Black Atlantic, and over that summer he held a research fellowship at the JCB. Randi is a journalist for NBC. They had talked about their respective professions, they had talked about the NYT series, and then they watched and talked about the event; I asked them to talk with me about their reactions and about their hopes for how historians and journalists can work together to tackle some of our biggest social and political challenges.

Thank you both so much for talking with me!  Did you talk about the NYT series, and did you plan to watch this event together?

Randi:  I remember when the New York Times first published this series, Taylor sent some of the feedback on Twitter to me, like, ‘Hey, did you see this? Some historians are not so happy with this coverage!’ And we got on the phone and debated back and forth. We were actually together in Providence when he was a fellow at the JCB, so we watched it together on his laptop.

Taylor:  And, you know, given that she's a journalist, I thought, ‘Okay, I would love to get your perspective on it.’ And it was just great being able to occupy a journalist's mindset for a minute and see, you know, am I being biased as a historian or what do you think about this? 

Why does this topic seem so important, from both a journalistic and a historical perspective?

Taylor:  As several of the historians and journalists emphasized, we live in a climate where many of us are attempting to reckon with the ramifications of imperialism and slavery. And we're attempting to contend and come to terms with the ways in which the Global South in and of itself has been dispossessed and disenfranchised. On a trip to Paris, for example, I just marveled at the wealth and architecture, and thought of the extent to which that wealth was generated from the economic exploitation of Haiti and other colonies.  And the same is true of Britain, and the same is true of much of the western world. So, in this moment Haiti presents an ideal site for this discourse about the Global South and about race and economic inequality. 

Randi:  I agree. Haiti in itself is such a rich research site. And from the journalism perspective, the New York Times may have been marking the anniversary of when Haiti's president was assassinated, asking what's happened since then? Where are they now? Anniversary pieces are very popular! And what a great time to ask the larger question of, now wait a minute, why are they still paying France back? As a journalist you just find that thread and you keep pulling. Even aside from the anniversary, Haiti is always top of mind as it recovers from multiple earthquakes and natural disasters and as hunger and poverty remain prevalent in the country. It would be a disservice not to cover it because then you're not informing the public, which is one of our main charges. 

What do you think makes the work of historians and journalists different?

Taylor:  Journalists do quote where they got their information from but in a very different way from a historian. Historians will be in dialogue with other historians and, you know, someone 30 years from now will be arguing against your thesis!  

Randi:  Definitely the citation practices are really different, especially in the formatting. You would never see footnotes in news article. You see “according to xx” and a hyperlink to said reference. I also think that historians, just by trade, know everything –or a lot– about one topic or one field, while journalists tend to know a little bit about everything. 

But maybe there are similarities, too. Don’t both historians and journalists have to show that their work is fresh– for journalists, that it’s newsworthy, for scholars that it’s innovative research?

Randi:  I think just on the most fundamental level, journalists and historians see something and it makes them think, ‘Why is this happening? Who has been involved in this? What happened last year? Then, what happened 50 years ago? What happened 100 years ago?’ I see journalists as the interim historian.

Taylor:   Historians and journalists share a commitment to telling the stories of people whose voices are often erased or perceived to be erased, or, at least my favorite historians as well as my favorite journalists showcase the ways in which ordinary people have been impacted by either past or present political or economic or social events. I also think that historians and journalists share a deeply inquisitive nature. 

What about the pressure –or burden of responsibility– on both scholars and journalists to have their work be novel or newsworthy?

Randi:  I'm so glad you brought up this point. Innovation and needing something new and distinguishable from past works is another commonality between journalists and historians. Taylor knows this very well as he embarks on his dissertation research. As journalists, we're always looking for the new, fresh story. And I think the pressure is real; what can I say now about this thing that I want to cover that is newsworthy? And that can sometimes be the touchy part, because if there are 100 years of articles about this, or 100 years of books about this. You do have to plant yourself firmly and explain why there needs to be a new article or book on this subject. Usually the need is there because there's a new perspective, or there's been new documentation found. My hope is that journalists and historians would build on that together.

Taylor:  I was actually just talking with my advisor about this. Sometimes it can be intimidating. There's just such pressure to always come up with something innovative within the historical field. And I feel like the same can be true for journalists. I do think that that's a way that historians and journalists are alike that's not immediately obvious from the outside.

Are there specific issues and subjects that historians and journalists should be working together to bring to greater–or new–public attention? 

Taylor: I found a lot of the backlash towards both the 1619 Project and the Ransom project disheartening. There are valid critiques, but then there are attempts to silence or shut down dialogue. I think that it's so important for historians and journalists to have respect for one another's processes and find a way to collaborate, especially when both are often demonized. We actually have common concerns; the best historians and the best journalists attempt to get their readers to ask questions about contemporary society or to question why things are the way they are, and to document and to tell the truth about what occurred to problematize narratives that are not rooted in reality, or that are partial. Journalists, historians, and economists should never be afraid of debate. We should never stray away from that fundamental quest for truth. 

Randi:   I think the single story narrative is dangerous. As Taylor was saying, there's always another perspective to add.  And I want to tease out that point about who's allowed to tell these stories, because for the last hundreds of years there have been so many books and scholarly articles on slavery from the perspective of the Confederate soldiers, the slave masters, the plantation owners - their perspective is already in the cannon. The 1619 project was written from another perspective. And the same is true for the series on Haiti. There's a lot from the French perspective, from the colonizer perspective, and now we’re finally seeing more coverage that Haitians were still paying back France for freeing themselves!


Taylor Prescott is a fourth year Ph.D. history candidate studying slavery, abolition, and empire in eighteenth and nineteenth century Sierra Leone along with its connections to the wider Atlantic World. Hailing from Cleveland, Mississippi, he received his B.A from Fisk University and his M.A. from Georgetown University. His research has been supported by the John Carter Brown Library, the Fulbright Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and the New York Public Library. 

Randi Richardson is a proud Michigan supremacist who currently lives in Brooklyn. She’s a reporter at NBC News TODAY.com and a proud alumna of Brown University. She primarily covers trending news and racial disparities across different industries. She’s interviewed Angela Bassett, Usher, Tracee Ellis Ross and other stars. She loves all things Jesus, joy and justice and wishes she could teleport. Her instagram is @randirichnbc and her website is randirichardsonreports.com.